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Highly Opinionated

The Unfinished Score

By Published: December 28, 2007
Johan Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, and the modernists—Antonin Dvorak, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky...Their names echoed like epiphanies in my head in my waking moments. I studied, performed, lived and breathed their music. I dreamed of performing in the concert halls of London—like the Royal Albert Hall, where my aunt, the great pianist Olga Crean, had become the first coloured woman to play solo in concert in the 40s. Until, that is, my late father introduced me to the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong via a vinyl copy of 'Paris Blues'.

I was seduced by the tone and texture of what I heard. I begged my father for more and he obliged surreptitiously! Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and a few others became staple diet. I was drawn to the bass and drum conversations—the pedal point and ostinato statements. Walter Page's walking bass lines for Basie and Jimmy Blanton's majestic harmonics with early 40s Ellingtonia...

Then my father—the creative engineer that he was—gave me the ultimate gift that any boy obsessed with an instrument could have: he built me a double bass! I returned the compliment, attempting to imitate the licks of Jimmy Blanton and Wellman Braud well into the night—when I was not playing Beethoven and Mozart! I knew that something in me was changing. I was being drawn to the blues of jazz like an irresistible heartache. Not long after I heard Bird and Dizzy; Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk...I was taken to a concert featuring the Ellington band of the 60s. I heard Satchmo and wished that I could have jumped on stage to hold onto his horn as he wiped the beads of sweat off his brow between songs...My mind was made up. This was now my music. And so I committed—according to my teachers at the conservatoire—the ultimate blasphemy by abandoning my classical studies and began to study jazz harmony and composition.

By this time I was twelve years old. My fingers were becoming strong and moving faster.

I was also a practising poet who dreamed a changing dream. One day I woke up a disciple of Keats, the next day an acolyte of Dante, Villon and Shakespeare...Yeats, William Carlos Williams—finally Pound. I was precocious; even started a magazine with two other poets when establishment journals refused to publish my always-experimental work. To support myself, I took up work as a proofreader in an advertising agency. I paid my way through University, finally acquiring a Bachelor's Degree in World History, and because I was disillusioned with history as documented in text books, changed my major for my Master's degree from History to the Romance Languages, acquiring that degree finally in the Classics. Two years later (as I mentioned at the very beginning of this article) I published my first collection of poems.

Still...I had no idea of what was coming down the turnpike!

One day, just past the New Year of '74, I walked into a second hand record store. There I found a record that was to change my life yet again, this time, seemingly forever. This record was 'The Town Hall Concert' by Charles Mingus (with Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Clifford Jordan and Dannie Richmond...) The vinyl issue was the one on which Mingus performed—to my mind—his magnum opus: 'Meditations on Integration'.

It was this work that set me on a decades-long voyage of discovery of Charles Mingus: the man, his music and ultimately his life.

In his introduction to the performance, Mingus explained to his Town Hall audience, that he was inspired to write the piece by something that Eric Dolphy had told him...about how 'they were separating people down South...the blacks and whites...with barbed wire...and how they had better put some wire-cutters in our hands, before somebody gives some guns to us...'

And then he launched—with some of the most exquisitely expressive arco bass playing, into his brooding composition about the deep-rooted racism under the skies of America. Byard joined him in the introduction on piano, his alter ego Dannie Richmond sizzling on his various cymbals and the great Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet.

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